Syria's deja vu: the revolts of 1925 and 2011

Syria's deja vu: the revolts of 1925 and 2011
Comment: The similarities between the 2011 revolt and the 1925 uprising against the French suggest it might be decades before Syria creates a truly free society, says John McHugo.
6 min read
15 May, 2015
French Senegalise troops fight Druze horsemen in this 1925 French illustration [Getty]

The regime in Damascus has lost control of much of Syria for the foreseeable future. It has too few soldiers to retake the areas it has lost.

In brutal desperation, the authorities send the air force to rain bombs indiscriminately on towns and villages that have slipped from their grasp. They are nervous about the allegiance of the Sunni majority of the population, and recruit militias to support the army, largely from minorities.

These militias commit atrocities, further inciting the population against the regime. Government forces perched on the mountains above Damascus shell rebel-held areas of the city. The rebels commit atrocities, too, but the regime employs systematic state terror in its attempt to regain control.

Does this sound familiar? These words could describe what is happening in Syria today, but might equally have been written about the great rebellion against the French Mandate in Syria that began in July 1925.

The great revolt of 1925

First, the Druze of the Hawran in the far south of the country rose up against the mandate authorities. The French thought that the Druze, as a religious minority, had few links with other Syrians. They were wrong. When Druze warriors successfully ambushed French columns sent to punish them, many local Muslims and Christians joined the revolt.


The French thought that the Druze, as a religious minority, had few links with other Syrians. They were wrong.

On 4 October 1925, Syrian troops in the predominantly Sunni city of Hama, over 200 miles north of the Hawran, mutinied and besieged the French administrators in their citadel. Two weeks later, Damascus itself rose and the High Commissioner's residence was ransacked. The whole southern half of Syria ceased to be safe for government forces.

At first brutal French tactics in 1925 just strengthened the rebellion. Damascus and Hama were crushed by artillery and bombers. Although the French regained control of the streets of these shattered cities, they had only succeeded in flushing the rebels out into the countryside, where they harassed government communications.

The French eventually won because they were able to ship in a large army from other parts of their empire.  With boots on the ground, they squeezed the lifeblood out of the rebellion. Insurgent leaders like Fawzi al-Qawuqji, who had raised the flag of revolt in Hama, were welcomed as heroes wherever they went.

However, people nervously urged him and his followers to move on. His presence would attract savage reprisals against any community suspected of harbouring him. In the spring of 1927, he followed other key figures in the rebellion, such as the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash and the Damascus-based politician Abdulrahman Shahbandar, into exile.

Fast forward to 2011

The geographical spread of the rebellion that began against Bashar al-Assad's regime in 2011 is different, but comparable in extent. Large parts of the north and east of the country that did not rise in 1925 have done so. History never repeats itself exactly, but neither in 1925 nor 2011 did the government foresee the rebellion or the extent to which it would unite so many Syrians from different backgrounds.

Both uprisings were swelled by the neglected and excluded, as the poor in cities and the countryside flocked to the banner of revolt.

In each case, this was in reaction to a desperate economic situation brought about by a combination of short-sighted government policies and years of drought. Another point of commonality between the two uprisings is in the propaganda war. Like the French, Bashar al-Assad has done all he can to demonise opposition to his rule as sectarian fanaticism.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the French were foreigners. They had no legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of Syrians, but many who depended on the French for their positions or hoped to gain from French rule remained loyal. Others were quietly relieved when the rebellion failed.

As war shattered everyday life, most ordinary people just wished it would end. But as people from different sects fought the French, they discovered a shared sense of nationhood. This changed Syria irreversibly, and the French realised they would have to compromise with Syria's Arab nationalists in order to rule.

The uprising against the French was put down within two years. Today's Syrian revolution has already lasted four, and no end is in sight.

Bashar al-Assad has no army coming from overseas to help him regain control. Although he is Syrian, the revolution has shown his support is limited to segments of the population. He receives foreign help from the powerful Lebanese Shia militia Hizballah, Iran and Iraqi Shia volunteers, but they cannot provide the numbers the French needed to reconquer the country.

Significant differences

The rebels themselves are aided by large numbers of foreign volunteers. These include fighters in the Islamic State group, which has has done immense damage to the moral cause of the rebels, since its agenda and tactics are far removed from those of the Syrians who broke the barrier of fear to challenge the might of Assad's security state.

The French won because they shipped in an army from other parts of their empire. They squeezed the lifeblood out of the rebellion.

The IS and the foreign fighters it has attracted had no equivalent during the 1925 rebellion. Although individual Arab nationalists and tribes whose migration patterns criss-crossed Syria's borders entered Syria to fight the French, they merely wished to help their Syrian Arab brothers defeat a foreign occupier. They certainly did not have the agenda of establishing a sectarian state.

Like the French, Assad fears the country's Sunni majority, even though Syria has been one of the most secular Arab states and many Syrian Muslims resist the increasing trend to articulate politics in terms of Islam.

The government's considered response to the demonstrators calling for freedom and dignity was to accuse them of being manipulated by foreign conspiracies. Through actions such as releasing al-Qaeda operatives from jail and attempting to paint all opposition as militant terrorism, it has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Assad has been much more successful than the French at playing the sectarian card. Yet this does not look likely to enable him to reconquer Syria, where the civil war has become a proxy conflict for foreign powers. This is another way in which what is happening today is very different from 1925.

The 1925 uprising gave Syria a sense of nationhood. What will the revolution of 2011 and the ensuing devastation give it? The regime cannot defeat the rebels and has employed the ultra-cynical tactic of playing them off against each other. This risks plunging the country into warlordism and de facto partition.

On the other hand, and all too rarely highlighted by the media, the plight of Syrians today is also creating solidarity, just as it did in 1925. It took two decades of nationalist agitation after the 1925 rebellion had been crushed to end French rule. Unfortunately, it will probably take a similar period for Syria to rebuild itself and create a free society, when the turmoil of its current conflict finally ends.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic website.